Given that at least 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem each year, it is likely that all of us will at some point find ourselves supporting a friend who is struggling.
Having a mental health condition does not change who our kind, funny, unique and caring friend is, but it can leave us feeling a little lost about how we can best be there for them. Whilst there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to supporting someone with a mental illness, the power of our support cannot be underestimated and there are many simple and meaningful things we can do to help.
The single best thing you can do for a friend who is struggling is to listen. Often, when friends tell us that they are finding something difficult, our immediate reaction is to offer the first advice that comes to mind and to encourage them to ‘stay positive’. Unfortunately, for someone who is experiencing mental health problems, this can feel like an impossible task and may add to the pressure they feel to carry on as normal when inside everything feels too much. Usually, they will just want someone to listen to, accept and acknowledge how they feel without judging. Simply knowing that there is someone they can share their thoughts with can be enough to make that person feel a little less alone and isolated.
It is also important to listen to, and encourage, our friends to share what they feel will be helpful, rather than putting unrealistic pressure on ourselves to provide a solution. Every person and every friendship is different – maybe your friend will want to talk, maybe they want to distract themselves by watching a film together, maybe they just want you to be there without saying anything at all.
Remind them that you are there for them
This can be a text, a card, a small gift or simply a hug that says ‘I am here for you’. Sometimes, mental illness can lead people to push their friends and family away. Your friend probably no longer feels like the brilliant individual that you know they are, and may want to make you feel that too. This can mean that they stop calling or texting you, cancel any plans you have to meet up, or even say hurtful things. This can leave us feeling upset, angry and confused, and can make it hard to hold on to our motivation to support that person. However, the most important thing to do when this happens is to remind our friends that we are there for them no matter what, even when we get nothing back. Giving up on a friend who is struggling with their mental health can feel like confirmation to them that they are not worthy of friendship. Small and regular gestures of support, on the other hand, are enough to let them know that you are willing to share the hard times with them, whenever they are ready to share them with you.
Don’t panic, but do encourage them to seek support*
If someone opens up to you about how they are feeling, try your best not to panic. Talking to someone about mental health struggles can be scary, so staying calm can make your friend feel calm too, and will show them that they can talk to you openly. Just listen, and let them know that you are there if they need you. In time, it may be important to encourage your friend to seek professional support, but ultimately this is something they must do if and when they are ready. Let them set the pace. Trying to force change or taking matters into your own hands is more likely to push your friend away than it is to help. Reassuring them that it is ok to seek help and that they are deserving of it is a great first step. Later, if you feel comfortable to, you may want to offer practical support such as getting the bus with them to an appointment, but this should be led by your friend’s wishes.
What doesn’t help?
You don’t have to be an expert to talk about mental health. Talking about emotions can be hard, but it is important and it can make the world of difference to someone who is struggling. Sometimes, our friends may find it too difficult to reach out to us, and we might have to be the person to start the conversation. It can be tempting to avoid doing this because we are unsure of what to say, but it doesn’t have to be scary. Simply asking something like, “You seem a bit down lately, are you ok? Do you want to talk about it?” is a great place to start. It may be that your friend doesn’t want to talk right now, but knowing that you want to listen may help them to reach out to you when they are ready.
Sometimes we ignore things because we find them difficult or don’t understand them, but ignoring mental health symptoms can give off the message to our peers that they are something to be ashamed of and something that shouldn’t be spoken about. Instead, asking your friend questions about their thoughts and feelings shows them that you want to understand what they are experiencing. However, some people may not feel able to answer these questions, or you may not feel comfortable to ask them. This is perfectly ok too. You can always find out more about your friend’s mental health condition for yourself if you would like to – Mind.org.uk has lots of useful and easy to understand information.
Paying too much attention to symptoms: On the other hand, paying too much attention to mental health symptoms can be unhelpful. Your friend is much much more than their illness, and it is important not to forget that. Be open to talking about the difficult things they are experiencing, but also remind them of all of the positives you see in them.
Look after yourself!
Last but certainly not least, we must remember to take care of ourselves. Although helping a friend can be very rewarding, it can also be very overwhelming and can have a big impact on our own emotions. It can feel especially difficult when the time, thought and effort that usually brings happiness to our friend no longer holds that power. Try to set boundaries, don’t take on too much responsibility, and don’t make any promises you cannot keep. Talking about your own feelings with someone you trust can help you to feel supported too. Make sure you take enough time to practice self-care and continue doing the things you enjoy. Self-care is not selfish. It is actually the most important thing of all, because you have to look after yourself first for you to be able to look after others.
Lastly, it is important to remember that are lots of different mental health conditions, and everyone’s experience is different. Not all of this advice will be right for everyone, but it is a good place to start. You can find lots more information and guidance about specific mental health problems and how to support someone experiencing them by visiting https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/helping-someone-else/. Don’t forget to reach out for support if you need it too!
*If you become concerned that your friend is in serious danger of harm, you should strongly encourage them to tell a parent/carer/sibling that they live with so that they can keep them safe. Failing this, you may have to tell their most appropriate family member or other trusted adult yourself. If this is too distressing for your friend, you should stay with them and ensure they seek support by visiting Mind.org.uk and clicking ‘I need urgent help’; or you can phone NHS 111, who will be able to give you guidance and reassurance on what you should do next. This post is not written by a medical professional and is not a substitute for professional advice and treatment.
Written by: Ellie, Cherished Mentor